How I Got That Shot: Portrait of a Football Hit Man

February 29, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Nathaniel Welch

To shoot this portrait of controversial linebacker James Harrison, Nathaniel Welch wanted the back lights a half a stop hotter than the key light. To see more images from the shoot, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Photographer: Nathaniel Welch
Client: Men’s Journal
Photo Director: Michelle Wolfe
Creative Director: Benjamen Purvis

For a profile of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, titled “Confessions of an NFL Hitman,” Men’s Journal assigned photographer Nathaniel Welch to shoot portraits that would illustrate the article, in which Harrison talks about his reputation as a “mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people.” Harrison, who was fined $100,000 in one season for rough tackles, also rails against National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell for calling him a dirty player.

Welch recalls that in his initial meeting about the assignment, photo director Michelle Wolfe noted that Harrison owns guns, and explained that the magazine wanted a photo of Harrison posing with some of them. Welch says he was concerned, in part “because I know how hard it is to get people to hold a gun in a photograph.” He was also wary of posing an African-American man this way, he says, noting, “It’s a stereotype. Let’s move on.”

When he arrived at the shoot in Harrison’s Pittsburgh home, Welch explained up front that the editors wanted a portrait that included guns. Welch also saw a marlin mounted on the wall and learned that the football player enjoys fishing and hunting. During the first ten minutes of the shoot, Welch, who hunts himself and has photographed for Field & Stream, chatted with Harrison about hunting, then suggested they look through Harrison’s gun collection. “The safe where he keeps his guns is the size of a refrigerator” and contained about 20 rifles, shotguns and handguns, the photographer recalls. They picked two to use in the portrait.

Welch, his first assistant, Johnny Perez, and local assistant Bob George arrived an hour and a half before the shoot began, and Harrison’s assistant showed them around. Welch needed a room with high ceilings to accommodate a backdrop 12 feet high. “It’s hard to make a black backdrop look black unless you move the subject away from it,” Welch notes. He also wanted to set the camera low and shoot upwards, without showing the top of the backdrop.

A low camera angle, he says, would emphasize the subject’s strength and power. “My job is to stop people when they’re flipping through a magazine,” he says. “If I can get them to stop and read the first two sentences of the article, I’ve done my job.”

The room that worked best for the shoot was the playroom. After Welch and his assistants moved all the toys to the hall, they blacked out the windows with black wrap and foam core. After the shoot, they moved all the toys back, and Welch photographed Harrison playing with his sons, while his assistant shot video (later used on the Men’s Journal Web site).

To put his subjects at ease, Welch says he likes to shoot fast, and talk constantly. “I learned early on when I was shooting film that the Polaroids always looked great because people don’t take it seriously. The beauty of digital is you can shoot 500 frames, throw away 450 and keep 50.” As he shoots, “People relax after a while and you just kind of wear them out. They don’t feel uptight about the process anymore and they just become themselves again.”

Two Profoto beauty dishes with grids and black wrap were placed on either side of Harrison at shoulder height. The key light was a Profoto with a seven-inch reflector with black wrap on it, set on a stand and held directly over the camera, centered on Harrison’s face. A 3 x 4 piece of white foam was placed on a stand close to the floor, tilted up, to add fill.

“I always get the lights as close as I can to the subject. The quality of light is just better if you get it closer,” Welch says. “What I typically do is line up the shot, look in the camera, have my assistant move the light in until I can see it, and then move it just out of the frame.” Welch also likes to shoot close, and rarely uses a tripod.

To make the photo look “spicy,” he says, “I usually shoot the back lights a half a stop hotter than the key light.” In this case, “The key light was metered at f/11; the back side lights were metered at f/11.5 to give them a little bit of a pop.”

A Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at ISO 100 was used for the shoot. Welch notes that when he first switched to digital about three years ago after shooting a Mamiya RZ, “I spent about $10,000 on prime lenses.” After testing each one, he tried the 24-70mm zoom he got in the camera kit, and liked the results. After that, he said, he sold all his prime lenses on eBay. “You get that intimacy with your subject when it’s slightly wide angle.”

Post Production:
The night after the shoot, he edited down his take to his favorite 30 images, and uploaded the TIFFs to his FTP site. A few days later he sent an additional 200 images. “My strategy is to send my favorites first and get the creative director chewing on them, and then I’ll send them a bigger edit.” Once a portrait was selected, Welch asked his retoucher, Jennifer Scarola of Retouching by Jenny, to open up the eyes, which looked dark, and make the shadows on both shoulders more symmetrical.

Visit the Men’s Journal site to see behind-the-scenes video from the shoot.

Related Articles:

Photo Gallery: Additional Images from the Men’s Journal Shoot
David Eulitt: Talking Football Photography
How I Got That Shot: Tricky Lights Up